Americans are fairly uncommon throughout the Curia and particularly rare in the older administrative branches, called congregations.

About a third of the Vatican's 3,000 full-time employees are staff workers in the Curia, and only about two dozen of the Curia people are Americans.

American bishops and cardinals hold voting positions (which are given out something like committee assignments in the American Congress) on the policymaking boards of various sacred congregations. But while these are more than honorary positions, since the members are sometimes consulted by mail, they are almost honorary since the Americans, busy running their dioceses, are seldom in town to vote at the congregations' regular meetings.

Since the death of Cardinal John Wright in August, none of the curial offices has an American serving as its cardinal prefect. There has been considerable discussion lately among Americans at the Vatican over whether Pope John Paul will announce a new American appointment to the Curia during his visit to the United States. Four of the major American cities he will visit -- Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington -- have cardinals, any one of whom would be eligible to head a sacred congregation. The names mentioned most often as likely choices are Cardinal William Baum of Washington and Cardinal Bernard Krol of Philadelphia, a personal friend of the pope.

"A lot of people in American archdioceses are hoping that their cardinal will be given a job in Rome," says one American priest in Rome, "partly because it's a great honor and partly because they'd like to get the guy out of town."

Bishops, in contrast, do not like to get rid of their priests, and that's one explanation offered as to why there aren't more Americans in the Curia. If a man is good enough to send to Rome, he's good enough to be wanted for work in his own diocese.

"You don't apply for a job in the Curia," says a young American priest in one of the oldest and most powerful congregations. "If you did, you would be put at the bottom of the list." What happens instead is that the prefect of a congregation notices a likely candidate (almost inevitably one who has worked or studied in Rome) and persuades his bishop to let him go. There seems to be a tendency (though not a rigid policy) to replace an American with an American, a Frenchman with a Frenchman, a Pole with a Pole -- or at least to replace one non-Italian with another. This is known as internationalization, and it's much discussed, although staffs in the Curia are still about two-thirds Italian, supplemented by strong French and Spanish contingents.

When an American priest is tapped for a job in the Curia, his bishop sometimes lets him go for a limited time -- one five-year term, perhaps renewable once for another five years. This kind of agreement is modeled on the terms of office now imposed on the cardinals prefect of curial congregations.

Besides the bishop's reluctance to let priests go, one American priest offered abundant reasons there aren't more Americans in the Curia: "The work is terribly complex, and not everybody can do it. There's an awful homesickness that afflicts a lot of Americans after they've been here a while: You're isolated in a strange society, far from your family and old friends, and have to conduct your daily life in a foreign language. And for priests it can be important that there are such limited opportunities for pastoral experience."

The wonder, perhaps, is not why there are so few Americans in the Curia, but why there are any at all.

"It's a place for workaholics," says an old-timer. "Economically, a parish priest in America is much better off than a priest in the Curia."